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Vivian French Interview

Wednesday, 21 November 2001

Jubilee Books: What made you want to become a writer?
Vivian French:
I didn't. I never thought of being a writer at school - I wasn't particularly good at writing or spelling - one of my teachers tore up one of my stories in front of the whole class. I wanted to be a long distance lorry driver, or drive steam trains, or be an actor.

What was your first book?
I'm not sure which was first - Tottie's Pig's Noisy Christmas, Tottie Pig's Special Birthday or Zenobia and the Mouse. They all came out in 1990.

What is your most recent book?
Singing to the Sun.

Where do you normally write?
Anywhere I have my iBook laptop computer. I'm not an early starte; I usually put off doing any work until around lunchtime.

Do you have any hobbies?
Loud, live music. I like Richard Thompson and Lyle Lovett - my kids say I'm an old hippie. It's probably true. I also like travelling and eating.

What books inspired you as a child?
I read an enormous amount, and my dad read to me a lot. I loved The Box of Delights by John Masefield, The Dawnchild by Beryl Irving (has anyone else ever read this?) and Magic in My Pocket by Alison Uttley. I read all the fairy stories and folk tales I could get my hands on - I especially remember a copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales belonging to my grandfather. It has really crude woodcut pictures, and it gave me nightmares - but I kept going back and reading it again and again.

What books inspire you now?
I like American authors like Jerry Spinelli, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Patricia Madachlan. My favourite book of all time is Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. You can always find something amazing in it. I also like parables - stories that have a deeper meaning.

Other writers that inspire you?
Samuel Johnson. He was very plain, which I like, and he really loved words. His dictionary is a real work of art. Most people seem to like heroic men, but I admire him enormously. I also really like the metaphysical poets like John Donne, George Herbert and Henry King. I know King's Elegy off by heart; it's the most beautiful piece of writing.

What people have inspired you?
I think people who truly believe in something and go all out to change a situation that they're not happy with are inspiring. I think Eddie, who runs Jubilee Books is an inspiration to everyone in the children's book world; so is Margaret Meek, and Wendy Cooling, and Lindsey Fraser at Scottish Book Trust. It matters so much that kids have access to books - and that they get the right books, not just the commercial hard sell.

What were your favourite subjects at school?
I didn't have any. I just liked reading, although I was useless at reading out loud.
Actually, I'm still inclined to read too fast and make mistakes. I recently looked at a school project on castles, and I thought it said "only the healthy lives in castles." I worried about that for the whole morning (what happened if you got a cold?) until a nice child pointed out that it said "only the wealthy lived in castles"!

What other jobs have you had?
I started off at the National Book League. I used to sit and read children's books and answer people's queries, and I only lasted six months. I didn't know anything about anything, and someone finally noticed. Then I went off and joined a theatre company. I worked for various kinds of theatre companies, and toured a lot - all over England and Wales. After that I was a drama worked at a community arts centre in Barnet (in the days of the GLC), and while I was there I began telling stories. When I moved to Bristol I went on telling stories, and I also worked as a counsellor in schools for a while.

Do you have a favourite TV show or film?
King Rollo, Mr Benn, The Magic Roundabout are some of my favourite television shows. Films I like include Breaking the Waves and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I really loved both the Toy Story films, but I think my most favourite film of all is The Princess Bride. 'Inconceivable!!!'

Favourite food?
I like vegetables, especially parsnips, beetroot and tomatoes. I also love bananas - and if I'm feeling weedy I make myself a boiled egg with soldiers. Sad, really...

Favourite place?
I'm always happy when I'm in Scotland, but I'm not certain that I've found my favourite place yet. I do like the seaside - but then again I love the bustle of cities. New York is great - and so is Belfast - and I suppose this means I don't really know.

What are your good and bad qualities?
I think my best quality is that I like people. My bad qualities include being untidy and messy, and I leave everything until the last minute. I always think I can stuff eight days living into three.

What book have you most enjoyed writing?
The Kingfisher book of Fairy Tales. I had a totally brilliant editor - Ann-Janine Murtagh - and she pulled something out of me in terms of writing that I didn't know I had. Also it was very exciting to revisit all my old favourites; it made me look at Cinderella in a very different way, in terms of time passing ... and I'd never seen that before.

You like fantasy?
I like the feeling of stories that go a long way back, and some of those stories include fantasy. Someone once said to me that they thought my stories sounded as if they had been about for a long time, I liked that.

What would you do if you weren't a writer?
I'd be a storyteller. Well, I am. If I couldn't do that either - hmm.. Maybe I'd be a long distance lorry driver in America and drive one of those fabulous eighteen wheeler trucks.

What is the best thing about writing?
You sometimes find a truth about yourself or the world that you didn't realize you knew.

How do you come up with the idea for a story?
It depends very much. Quite often I have two very disparate ideas that click together. I usually think about the overall feeling of the book, and then the ending, and then I work backwards.

What is the most important ingredient for a story?
Truth. if you don't believe in the story no reader will. Even if it's about rabbits or space mice you have to believe in the world that you're creating. I also think stories should be written from the heart; the one thing we all have in common is the ability to feel emotion.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Talk a lot, read a lot, listen, watch people and be around people.
I sometimes feel that children - or adults - who are technically good at writing are handicapped in this way because this facility can get in the way of the story developing it's own voice and passion and individuality. When I'm working with children in schools very often the so called 'least able writers' have the most original and wonderful ideas - they just need a little help with transferring their ideas onto paper. Don't EVER let the fact that you can't spell or write neatly put you off writing stories - use a tape recorder, tell the story to a friend, draw it out in pictures - it's the story that matters, not the packaging.

Interview conducted with Joseph Pike